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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

We the People: Senate designed to give all states equal representation

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., left, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walk to the chamber at the Capitol in Washington.  (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)
By Jim Camden For The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: How many U.S. senators are there now?

The Constitution provides for two senators for each state and as there are 50 states, there are 100 senators.

That creates a legislative body that is much smaller than the House of Representatives, which has 435 representatives that are elected in districts based on population and whose numbers vary from state to state.

That difference is part of a compromise that arose in the Constitutional Convention in 1787. At the time, the country was governed by a one-chamber congress set up by the Articles of Confederation. State legislatures could send between two and seven delegates to that congress, but each state had only one vote on issues before the chamber.

The members of the Constitutional Convention came up with a two-chamber Congress as one of their checks and balances of a new federal government’s power, which they were increasing. One chamber might yield to what James Madison called “the impulse of sudden and violent passions, and to be seduced by factious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions,” but a second chamber would work as check on the first.

As Madison, the principle author of the Constitution, wrote in the Federalist Papers Article 62, “the government ought to be founded on mixture of the principles of proportional and equal representation.” The House gave the larger states proportional representation while the Senate gave the smaller, less populous states equal representation.

Senators also were required to have some higher qualifications. Their minimum age was 30, compared to 25 for House members, and they must have been a citizen for at least nine years, compared to seven for the House. They serve six-year terms, with a third of the Senate elected every two years, compared to all House members being elected every two years.

Senators also were chosen originally by state legislatures, rather than by voters.

The Founders believed that popular sentiment could lead to poor legislation in the House, but that could be tempered by the smaller and more deliberate Senate where members were not subject to the pressures of the voters.

Problems with corruption in some legislatures over the appointment of senators led to the 17th Amendment, giving each state’s voters the power to elect their senators, starting in 1914.

To pass legislation, the Senate needs a simple majority, which is 51 votes if all senators are present. The current Senate has 50 senators who are Republicans and 50 who are Democrats or independents who join with them on most issues. Under the Constitution, when the vote in the Senate is tied, the vice president, who is also president of the Senate, can cast a vote to break the tie.

Because Vice President Kamala Harris is also a Democrat, that party has nominal control of the Senate.

Other votes, however, require supermajorities. The Constitution requires a two-thirds vote to convict someone of impeachment and Senate rules require 60 votes to end a delaying tactic – known as filibuster – on many issues.